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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stifling Second Half Defense Lifts Spurs to 2-0 Lead Over Suns

The Phoenix Suns once again roared out to a double digit first half lead only to falter down the stretch, losing 102-96 in game two of their first round series versus the San Antonio Spurs. Tony Parker led the Spurs with 32 points and seven assists, Tim Duncan added 18 points, 17 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots and Manu Ginobili--who received the Sixth Man Award prior to the game--contributed 29 points. Amare Stoudemire had a game-high 33 points but he completely disappeared in the second half, shooting 2-12 from the field. Steve Nash scored 23 points and passed for 10 assists but in the second half he had three turnovers and did not register an assist until just 14 seconds remained in the game. Shaquille O'Neal added 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots. O'Neal and Grant Hill--who was limited to fewer than 20 minutes due to injury--each had a team-best +3 plus/minus rating, while Stoudemire checked in at +1 and Nash registered a -3.

Nash won two regular season MVPs largely on the basis of his ability to make his teammates better but considering his own skill level and the talents of his teammates one would think that this should translate into more postseason success. Why is it that Nash gets the lion's share of the credit when things go right for Phoenix during the regular season but he is largely absolved of blame in the aftermath of their annual playoff breakdowns? The Suns are 3-10 versus the Spurs in the playoffs during the Nash era; during that period, Nash finished first, first and second in MVP balloting (with this year's result not yet announced) while Duncan finished fourth, eighth and fourth. Of course, Duncan won two championships and one Finals MVP from 2004 to the present.

The Suns traded away Shawn Marion to get O'Neal, figuring that he would provide the post presence that the team has consistently lacked. As noted above, the Suns have been the Spurs' punching bags for years but Phoenix beat San Antonio two times in the regular season after the O'Neal/Marion trade. Of course, those two victories are just distant, irrelevant memories now and in order to avoid elimination the Suns face the daunting task of beating the defending NBA champions four times in five games. What has gone wrong in the playoffs? What has changed since the Suns beat the Spurs in those regular season games? In game one, the Suns played very well overall but did not execute well or play with poise on a handful of late possessions that swung the outcome; in game two, the Suns played well for most of the first half before their offense completely died in the third quarter. Early in the contest, TNT's Doug Collins called this a "franchise-defining series" for the Suns and if that is the case then the defining moments of this series were probably those 12 minutes right after halftime. Despite blowing numerous chances to win game one, the Suns had a 61-54 halftime lead in game two and if they had held on to win this game then they would have enjoyed homecourt advantage as the series shifted to Phoenix. Instead, they shot 3-18 from the field, committed five turnovers and were outscored 27-11. Amazingly, five of those points came after Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich employed the "Hack a Shaq" strategy and O'Neal responded by making five out of six free throws; without those free points the Suns may not have reached double figures in the quarter. Meanwhile, throughout the game the Suns had trouble controlling the dribble penetration of Parker and Ginobili. Nash cannot guard either player, which forces the Suns to either use a zone or cross match, putting Nash on the small forward (usually Bruce Bowen) while the Suns' small forward (Hill or Boris Diaw) guards Parker. In previous games, Hill did a credible job filling Marion's shoes as the designated defender on Parker but Hill is hobbled now by a groin injury. Diaw and Leandro Barbosa contributed very little off of the bench, as each of them posted team-worst -18 plus/minus numbers.

If the Suns lose to the Spurs then that will be considered to represent a negative verdict on the O'Neal trade but I don't think that would be a fair or accurate assessment. As I said right after Suns' GM Steve Kerr pulled the trigger on this move, the Suns were never going to beat the Spurs without having some kind of post presence; adding O'Neal to the mix increased their chances of having postseason success. O'Neal has lived up to his end of the bargain, getting himself back in shape and accepting his role without question or complaint (Miami fans must be thrilled to see this after watching O'Neal lumber halfheartedly through the portion of the season during which he toiled for them but that is another story). With him in the mix they became a much better rebounding team and a much better defensive team in the paint. It could be argued that the Suns should have gotten him the ball more often in the second half to slow the game down; yes, the ironic thing about this game is that the supposedly stodgy Spurs employed a small lineup that decisively outperformed the Suns' small lineup.

The Suns made some questionable strategic moves during this game. For instance, I can understand using O'Neal as a decoy to free up Stoudemire--but why did the Suns repeatedly force feed the ball to Boris Diaw in the post in the second half? Diaw is a reluctant scorer, so the matchup advantage that he would seem to have over the shorter Ginobili or Parker is really not an advantage at all because it is not in Diaw's nature to have a shoot first mentality; that is why Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich defended Diaw that way in the first place. Popovich is outcoaching D'Antoni at every turn in this series. As Bum Phillips once said about Don Shula, "He could take his'n and beat your'n or he can take your'n and beat his'n"--one gets the distinct impression that if Popovich had Nash, Stoudemire and O'Neal at his disposal then he would find a better way to take advantage of what they do well. The Spurs' players have some obvious matchup advantages but the same can be said of the Suns' players versus their counterparts--and yet during the crucial moments of the first two games we are seeing the Spurs execute their plans calmly and efficiently while the Suns appear to be rattled and uncertain. Popovich is continually acting while D'Antoni is reacting; Popovich controls the tempo of the game by deciding to go with a small lineup or a big one and D'Antoni always seems to be a step behind.

Since 2006, five teams have lost playoff games after leading by at least 16 points--and Nash's Suns account for four of those five losses. Tuesday's loss to San Antonio almost made Phoenix five for six in this dubious category, because the Suns nearly pushed their advantage to 16 points, leading 26-12 in the first quarter before being outscored 90-70 the rest of the way. The ability to repeatedly get such big leads shows that the Suns have a lot of talent--and their propensity for squandering such advantages should raise questions about how D'Antoni and Nash are running the show. Particularly now that the Suns have a legitimate post up threat with O'Neal there is no justification for them to blow double digit leads; those situations are the perfect times to take the air out of the ball and let O'Neal pound the opposing big men into submission and/or foul trouble. Just like I think that Dallas made a mistake last year by trying to match up with Golden State in the first round of the playoffs, I think that it is incorrect for the Suns to always be reacting to the lineups that the Spurs use. The Suns should force the Spurs to bend to their will, not vice versa.

It is possible that the Suns will win two games at home to make this a competitive series once again but O'Neal's history in this regard is not promising; his teams were swept in 1994, 1995, 1996, 1999 and 2007, although his 2004 Lakers did rebound from a 2-0 deficit versus the Spurs to win four straight games. The most important thing for the Suns is to maintain their focus and intensity throughout the game; their players seem to be very apt to ride waves of emotion, whether those waves are positive or negative.

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posted by David Friedman @ 8:46 AM

18 comments

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18 Comments:

At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 2:21:00 PM, Blogger redrawblak said...

You're not going to beat San Antonio on the road twice in a row...which is why it's no surprise that Phoenix lost Game 2. They 'won' Game 1 in terms of how well they played for the majority of the game...they got 'outplayed' for a grand total of about 3 minutes between the two overtimes and the second half. The rest of the game was either pretty much even or in the Suns' favor. San Antonio executed better down the stretch (remember Tim Duncan's quote after their loss in Phoenix a month ago? Look it up.), and made some RIDICULOUS plays to stay in it. That game to me certainly doesn't show them to be a better team...but a more confident team, and a more experienced TEAM (you can't just 'add' Shaq's years of experience and call them a more experienced TEAM, since they haven't worked together much). No surprises there.

What does it tell us about Phoenix? Well, um, Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw are not the guys you want to have the ball in their hands with the game on the line. That shouldn't surprise anyone (but Game 1 and Game 2 featured one or the other choking it away). Shaq isn't the answer by himself. They NEED Grant Hill. Nash still looks confused a lot of the time (where the hell is their fast break??).

My question is...how much of this goes on D'Antoni? Why the hell isn't Amare taking the shot instead of Diaw? Why does the offense look so confused most of the time? Why oh WHY are they giving up so many uncontested layups? Who's in charge here, anyway?

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:08:00 PM, Blogger madnice said...

Its interesting that you brought up ONeal being swept that many times. Not many people know that. That alone doesnt make him the best center ever or best player ever as coined by Elliot Kalb in his book. ONeal is just old. People dont want to realize this but he is. Hell have a good game every now and then. But thats what happens when you are an older player. And Oneals 35 is like 45 because hes a center and has taken a beating since he was in high school. Hes just holding on for that cash. I think the Suns get swept.

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 4:56:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Redrawblak:

You have an interesting take and I tend to agree with you: the Suns "won" game one and it is difficult to beat a good team twice in a row on the road. I have said many times that the best chance for the road team to win a series is by taking that first game. I expected the Suns to do so, which is why I picked them to win the series, but they came up just short.

As I indicated in this post, I think that a lot of the responsibility for the Suns' 0-2 deficit falls on D'Antoni and Nash. D'Antoni decides who is on the court and what the overall game plan is, while Nash has the ball in his hands and makes the on the court decisions. Also, Nash's poor defense has been a serious weakness for this team for quite some time. It is true that a lot of teams have trouble guarding Parker but he basically had a career night (one off of his playoff career-high in scoring) in game two.

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 5:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I have never said that Shaq is the greatest center ever and I agree with you that being swept so many times is a good argument to use against anyone who does say that. If you are the Most Dominant Ever (as Shaq called himself during his prime) then you should be able to at least get a game in most cases. Kobe got a game off of the Suns last year despite being saddled with Kwame and Smush.

That said, Shaq's role at this stage of his career is not to carry the team. He is doing exactly what the Suns brought him there to do but other players are falling short. Nash and Amare are not getting the job done late in these games and D'Antoni is getting outcoached by Popovich in terms of substitution patterns, game plans and so forth.

 
At Wednesday, April 23, 2008 6:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

in his prime he never got swept 99-2000-2005-2006 he only lost in the second round finals and conference finals and they were both game. he got swept in 07 but he was 35 years old? he got swept early in his career and he has has only lost in the first round one time. kobe lost in the first round a couple times wilt lost 7 times as a favirote.

anyway the suns will make it a long series and still have a chance to win this one. shaq is a team guy he is doing the best he could do right now. nash should be the one called to the feet with his 3-10 record dirk nash or steve nowitski whatever way you like to say it is a regular season player he is not a playoff championship player he is not kobe, shaq time duncan lebron any one that has real heart and a winning mentality he is a loser and that all hell ever be.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 2:07:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I doubt Nash will be blamed in any way if the Suns go on to lose. Last year it was the suspensions, this year the critics will focus on the Shaq trade and how it was a "failed experiment."

The truth, as you have noted, is that Shaq has given them everything they could have expected and then some (given his age). The problem is the Suns aren't getting as much offense outside of their "Big 3" as they usually do. On top of that, they can't stop the Spurs from penetrating. I'm puzzled as to why no one from the mainstream ever mentions what a liability Nash is on defense. They have no trouble talking about someone like Carmelo Anthony needing to recognize that teams are coming after him and how he needs to set the tone on defense.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 3:08:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What was so wrong with going to Diaw? He might not score a bucketload of points against Parker/Ginobili, but can't he see over both of them and find cutters?
He's their second best playmaker. Giving it to Shaq everytime might sound like a better option but there are times and spots where Shaq makes poor decisions with the ball.
Ditto for Amare. At a bad spot, hey are likely to get called for the charge. Given that Nash is still their best shooter, wouldn't this also get Nash some easy buckets for a change?
It might relieve some of Nash's playmaking duties, it might loosen up the paint or cause a favorable switch.

The Hack-a-Shaq doesn't necessarily fail when he makes his freethrows. It also takes them out of their offensive rhythm.
It can function as a mini time-out(D'Antoni ran out of them), and as Popovich has demonstrated, as an effective tempo-controlling tool.
As long as they don't rely on it to make stops, I think it's a decent strategy.
I think that if you hack Shaq enough, he will start to make his freethrows. He starts getting in a comfort zone thus the "makes them when it counts" saying.
I haven't seen game 2 yet, but what was different in the second half? Did the Suns suddenly go away from what was working so well in the first?
Did they go cold? Did a lot of calls, loose balls, friendly bounces go the Spurs' way? Or was their first half shooting performance an abberation?

Z

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 7:03:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

You may be right that the Suns will extend this series. They certainly have the necessary personnel to do so, which is why I picked them to win in the first place, but they may not have the right mentality.

I agree that Shaq is doing the best that he can at this stage of his career. However, that does not change the fact that he was a dominant player who still allowed his team to be swept several times, even if we give him a "pass" for old age in 2007 (and 35 is "old" for Shaq mainly because he did not attend to his conditioning the way that Kareem, Wilt and some other great centers did).

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 7:10:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

There may not be a simple explanation why Nash's flaws aren't talked about more. Race is probably a factor, at least subliminally. My take is this:

The first time that Nash won the MVP it happened in a "vacuum," so to speak; Shaq should have won it that year but his numbers were not over the top dominant like they had been in some years, while Kobe missed a bunch of games due to injury and his Lakers did not make it to the playoffs. Nash was given too much credit for the Suns' initial success and ever since that time the media cannot really criticize him too much without calling into question the two MVPs they gave him--because the same flaws and limitations that Nash has now were present back then. Nash absolutely deserved All-NBA Team recognition but he has never been the best player in the NBA and that is why he has not been able to lead a very talented team to even one NBA Finals appearance. When you look at the other players who won multiple MVPs and how dominant they were and then you consider that Nash beat out Shaq, Kobe, LeBron, Duncan, etc. for his MVPs it just does not make sense and it never will.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 7:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Z:

There is a risk in going to Shaq late in the game if the Suns are behind because he will certainly be fouled; the Lakers always went to Kobe in those situations (someone else may have gotten the ball if Kobe was doubled but he was the first option). However, Nash is a two-time MVP and Amare is considered to be an MVP in waiting. They simply have to be the go to guys in those situations and if they are doubled then someone else will have a wide open shot. Diaw did some decent work in the post a couple years ago but he seems to have lost a lot of his confidence and aggressiveness. There is no way that he should be the primary option with the game on the line (or any other time for that matter). Everyone knows that Kobe or LeBron is getting the ball in such situations and their teams still find ways to get them open. Your ideas about how giving the ball to Diaw might work in theory (opening up Nash, etc.) sound good but we saw the results in practice and those results do not surprise anyone who has watched Diaw play recently. The ball has to go through Nash and/or Stoudemire, even if someone else ultimately shoots it because they get trapped. Also, the Suns had three defensive lapses that killed them in game one, giving up two threes to force overtimes and then giving up a layup to end the game. The Suns should have won game one, which would have set a completely different tone for this series.

I don't think that the Hack a Shaq is a good strategy. An NBA possession is worth about one point on average, so if he makes half of his free throws then you are not gaining any ground. This does not take the Suns out of offensive rhythm but it does let them set up their defense so it makes it harder for the other team to score. I can't ever recall seeing the Hack a Shaq be effective in terms of a team building a lead or making a comeback because of using that strategy. I also agree with Doug Collins that the NBA should look into preventing this by changing the rule so that after any away from the play foul the fouled team can select any player to shoot the free throw and then they retain possession of the ball. It just looks silly to have players chasing Shaq while he tries to avoid them; this is supposed to be basketball, not tag.

A lot of things went wrong in game two, as I detailed in the post. The Suns never were able to control dribble penetration. They stayed in the game as long as they could score but in the third quarter they shot a horrible percentage and turned the ball over, which is obviously a deadly combination. Amare looked tight to me and he missed a lot of shots he normally makes. Nash had no second half assists until the last seconds. A lot of times versus the Spurs it seems to me that he is not productive until they fall behind by a big margin, then he goes out and gets his averages after the outcome has already been settled. If you look at the boxscore it seems like he had a good game two but you would have a different impression if you watched the game because he hardly did anything when the game was in doubt.

I thought that the Suns should have gone to Shaq in the post more; I don't like him as a last second option but they should go to him earlier in the game to wear the Spurs down and get them in foul trouble. Barbosa provided nothing. Finally, the Suns really missed Grant Hill's defense on Parker. A healthy Hill would have taken Diaw's minutes and been more productive at both ends of the court.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 8:43:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

David...relax I never said you said Oneal was the best center ever.

 
At Thursday, April 24, 2008 5:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

I know that you never said that; I was just emphasizing that I agree with you that Shaq is not the greatest center or greatest player ever.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 8:46:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

And this trade has to be criticized if the Suns lose in the first round because what was the point of it? ONeal is getting older. Nash is getting older. This was a now this year trade. They have to win. If they dont win this year, when will they?

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 5:50:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

The trade has already been criticized and you are right that it will be criticized a lot more if the Suns lose the series. My take is that the Suns already proved that they could not beat the Spurs the "old" way so it was worth it to take a risk and try to add Shaq to the mix. Don't forget that Marion was a disgruntled player at times and even though he could guard Parker he also had a tendency to disappear in playoff games.

 
At Friday, April 25, 2008 8:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

shaq 92-99 was just a dunker who couldnt play pick and roll and didnt give effort on defense he was dominant in stats but wasnt as good as shaq 2000 where he never got swept till he was 35 the last time before was 27. he had 5 finals in 7 years 4 championships bird had 3 in 7 years magic had 3 in 7 years only all time great better in a 7 year stretch was jordan had 5 in 7 years bill had 7 straight championship. wilt was better all around he led league in asssits and better player indivdually but he wasnt the winner that shaq has been in his career, playing aginst better opposition than him so most dominant ever in totality winning and stats he might be. most dominant as far as stats is wilt.

 
At Saturday, April 26, 2008 6:47:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

You are essentially saying that Shaq spent the first half of his career as a one dimensional slacker and yet you are also saying that he should be ranked with guys like Bird, Magic and MJ? Bird and Magic were winners right from the start and MJ won as much as he could with the team that he had.

I don't understand why you arbitrarily chose seven years as a measuring stick. Magic won five titles in nine years and made the Finals seven times during that period. Russell won an unprecedented eight straight championships and 11 titles in 13 seasons, losing only to HoFer Pettit's Hawks and Chamberlain's 76ers, who were arguably the greatest single season team ever.

Shaq has been a great player but I can't quite put him with my Pantheon centers Russell, Wilt and Kareem.

 
At Saturday, April 26, 2008 5:38:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

anymous reggie

i used 7 years because that was shaq era. after jordan retired in 98 he took over the reign as best player of this time. also he didnt have a coach those years no dis respect to del harris kurt rambis and brian hill but they didnt garner the same respect from shaq as phil jackson did, just like doug collins didnt jordan and the guy before him. bird had hall of fame had kc jones he had won championships with celtics and magic pat riley won championship as a player. you have to garner great players respect by haveing a pedigree phil jackson won championships as player as well.

shaq was great player the first seven years but mainly a dunker like stoudamire or dwight howard now he hadnt developed jump hook or played the defense he did when he was winining rings. the dedication wasnt there all time but he's always been a winner 4 rings 6 finals he been in the 2nd round least from 1994-1995 2005-2006 he took 3 franchises to the finals. i know bird magic and jordan played on one team im just saying wherever shaq is gone he has been a winner that is unquestioned. also he made players around him better his whole career penny wade stoudamire even kobe to a certain degree i think kobe would look this good anyway because he better than those other 3 players. shaq isnt quite up there with magic and bird and jordan i never said he was or with wilt ruseell or kareem i would rank him 9th or 10th player all time. 1. jordan 2. wilt 3. ruseell 4 magic 5 bird 6. oscar robertson 7. kareem 8. shaq actually 9. jerry west 10 dr j.

 
At Sunday, April 27, 2008 6:59:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Reggie:

OK, I see what you are saying. My point is that you can't just pick an arbitrary number of years that favors Shaq; the other players you are talking about were at that MVP/championship level for a greater portion of their careers.

Shaq is not in my Pantheon (top 10) but I put him in my group of the top active players who could be considered as Pantheon level players after they retire (Shaq, Duncan, Kobe, LeBron). I would not put Shaq eighth all-time but I suppose one could make a case for doing so. I like that you have Kareem in your top ten because it seemed like in previous discussions you underrated him a bit.

It is true that Shaq helped out Penny, Kobe and D Wade but it is also true that as a poor free throw shooter who cannot create his own shot off the dribble he needed to be paired with an All-NBA level guard in order to win titles. Think how much better Howard would look if he had a guy like that; Hedo Turkoglu is doing a decent job this season in that role--which is one reason Orlando improved this year--but he obviously is not as good as Penny, Kobe and D Wade were when they made it to the Finals/won titles.

 

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